The show’s centerpiece is a series of “hub” sculptures: a long, translucent hallway that connects Seoul (blue) to New York (pink) via Berlin (green). At the pink end is a one-story staircase in red that replicates part of the building in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood where Suh lived from 1997 to 2016. (He left when his landlord died and the building was sold.)
Museum visitors can enter the corridor — albeit gingerly, because the fabric is delicate — and gaze from the safety of “home” out into the world. But they can’t climb the stairway, which is no more functional than a bicycle made of silk.
Also included are several drawings, most of which are actually stitchings. The lines of “Blueprint,” for example, are embroidered with thread; they depict a calm blue facade in front of red chaos.
The rest of the show consists of what Suh calls “specimens”: soft, single-color replicas of architectural details and domestic appliances. There are locks, door handles and switch plates, and a radiator, sink, microwave oven and fire extinguisher. All are constructed the same way as the larger structures: Stainless-steel armatures give shape to diaphanous cloth.
Long before Suh thought to sew a fabric toilet seat, Marcel Duchamp exhibited a common urinal. The French artist was declaring his prerogative to declare anything art. Suh is, in a sense, more conservative. His specimens are art because they have personal meaning — they all reproduce things he has lived with — and because they’re made with considerable craft.
To fabricate these pieces, Suh learned the skills of Korean garment makers. The featherweight material is the same used in traditional Korean summer clothing. (Not all that traditional — it’s polyester.) At a recent museum talk, the artist explained that he sees clothes and buildings as similar: Both are spaces to inhabit. And both can contain memories as well as bodies.
The link between Suh’s art and his homeland’s clothing serves as a concrete assertion of Korean identity, even if the works themselves are barely tangible. (Elsewhere, Suh has exhibited pieces based on buildings at the site of the 1980 student protests that shook Korea’s authoritarian government. But the work in this show reflects only the artist and his footprints.)
This is Suh’s first major exhibition on the East Coast, and the Seoul section of the installation has never been seen. But the artist’s work has been shown in galleries worldwide. Indeed, it’s designed to get around.
Suh calls his fabric domiciles “suitcase homes,” capable of being easily moved and rebuilt in a new location. These jet-age yurts aren’t quite carry-on art, but they’re much more portable than marble or bronze. They’re also more substantial, in their see-through way, than a purely conceptual piece.
Although Suh’s fabric constructions are personal, they’re part of a growing art-world penchant for place-making over thing-making. The Hirshhorn just had its lobby redesigned by Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, who in 2008 co-founded a Tokyo architecture studio even though he’s not a licensed architect.
Museums welcome such projects in part because of their popularity. At a time when one-dimensional images are ubiquitous, and people spend much of their lives gazing at screens, it’s a pleasant change to exit the smartphone universe and enter a unique 3-D space — even if it’s used as just another colorful backdrop for selfies.
However the public experiences the installation, though, it can never become entirely a public place. The artist’s private memories walk that hallway, and that is what gives the piece its resonance. Suh may be only “Almost Home,” but he’s closer than anyone else can be.
If you go
Do Ho Suh: Almost Home
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW. 202-633-7970. americanart.si.edu.
Dates: Through Aug. 5. Note: At 5:30 p.m. April 18, curator Sarah Newman will guide visitors through the exhibition.